Monthly Archives: May 2010

The Embalmer’s Fingerprints

Sometime in the winter of  1907 and 1908,  an American researcher found a curious assortment of objects lying in a small pit in the Valley of the Kings. Theodore Davis, like many Egyptologists of the day,  was looking for large, grand things, preferably royal tombs. So when he and his workers dug up several jars filled with linen bandages, worn kerchiefs,  broken pottery,  splintered animal bones, bits of dried mud, and collars made of faded dried flowers,  he immediately set them aside and resumed digging.

Davis thought he had found scraps from a poor man’s grave.  In fact,  he and his team had excavated all the leftovers from Tutankhamun’s  spectacular funeral in 1323 B.C. Read more…

On the Feasibility of Cloning a Neandertal

Scientific American has just posted a very cool interactive feature online today that’s  entitled “Twelve Events that Will Change Everything.” One of these game-changing events,  suggests the magazine,  will be human cloning.

The section on human cloning is relatively short,  but it includes several points of interest.  As regular readers here know,  I take a strong interest in scientific research on Neandertals,  particularly on  developments that could lead to the cloning of this extinct hominin.   Read more…

Fear and Loathing in the Caribbean

I think there are few more fascinating reads around than the early 16th century narratives of European adventurers in the Americas.    Most of these travelers had sized up their financial prospects at home and found them grimly wanting as younger sons of nobility or aspiring merchants.  So they signed up for long dangerous sea voyages in small sailing ships to lands few of their friends or family had ever heard of and fewer still could really imagine.

My overall impression is that these early travelers spent a good deal of their time in the Americas quaking in their boots.   Yes,  they had their swords and arquebuses and Spanish mastiffs,  but in the early decades of contact,  before smallpox and European diseases swept across the land and turned thriving villages into ghost towns,   these would-be colonists were hugely outnumbered.   In Jamaica alone,  for example,  the early Spanish sailors encountered some 60,000 Taino. Read more…

What’s the Difference between a Neandertal and a Modern Human?

Bright and early yesterday morning, I was on the phone listening to a important piece of scientific history unfold.  At the other end of the line was a Science magazine press conference in which researchers announced the world’s first draft sequence  of the Neandertal genome.   The team’s paper will appear tomorrow in Science.

I hadn’t had even my first cup of coffee yet,  and my dog pawed at the office door,  impatient to be fed and walked.  But I was riveted by calm,  sonorous voice of Svante Pääbo,  a geneticist at the Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and one of the team’s leading members,  as he gave an overview of the project.  “It’s extremely satisfying,” said Pääbo  “that we now have the overview of the Neandertal genome after four years of intense efforts.”   I can well imagine. Read more…

How to Hunt Swift-Footed Game

Archaeologists in Israel have just published a new study on mysterious funnel-shaped lines that stretch for miles across the deserts of Israel,  Jordan and Egypt.  In all likelihood,  they suggest,  the lines are part of an elaborate system of drive lanes and a pit trap for hunting gazelle.  In my regular end-of-the-month blog post for Archaeology magazine,  I explore the antiquity of these big game traps,  once used to hunt everything from caribou to antelope, horses to bison.

The Lords of Beringia

I am continually gob-smacked by the obsessive public interest in Atlantis.  Why, oh why, does a mere mention of this fabled continent quicken the heartbeat of so many?  Google, as I just did, “continent of Atlantis,”  and you will turn up a whopping  1,020,000 hits.  And a depressing number are devoted to bizarre lunatic-fringe theories concerning the location of the sunken continent  (my current favorite puts Atlantis somewhere off the coast of the Indonesia).

By contrast,  try mentioning Beringia to your friends and kids.  How many of them have heard of it?   It’s a real, honest-to-goodness sunken land–a huge chunk of northern real estate that once connected Alaska to Siberia and that now lies at the bottom of the Bering Sea.  It drowned,  as many of you undoubtedly know,  when huge ice sheets melted at the end of the last Ice Age and topped up sea levels by some 330 feet. Read more…